Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel bridges gap between casual, hard-core

Microsoft's latest accessory for the Xbox 360 exceeded my expectations where it counted: on the digital roads of my favorite racing sims.

Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel
Microsoft's Wireless Speed Wheel will be available in late October. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Along with my review copy of Forza Motorsport 4 , I was sent an example of Microsoft's Wireless Speed Wheel to test with the game. As a car guy and a bit of a racing sim snob, I initially viewed this wireless, motion sensitive plastic bauble down the bridge of my upturned nose. By the end of the weekend, the Speed Wheel had won me over.

Speed Wheel and Controller S
The Speed Wheel bridges the gap between the Controller S and a full racing wheel. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Normally, I do my racing simulation from behind a proper racing wheel with 900 degrees of rotation; belt-driven force feedback; the choice between paddle, H-pattern, or sequential shifters; a trio of pedals; and an aluminum adjustable stand to hold it all together. The whole kit weighs about 30 pounds and takes me about 10 minutes to drag from its place in the bottom of my closet and set up, but once it is, the driving experience is spectacular. Surely the wireless wheel can't do better?

The wireless wheel isn't so much shaped like a wheel as it is a stylized flight yoke from an airplane. Then again, the name "Wireless Speed Yoke" likely just doesn't roll of the tongue as smoothly. On one of the device's stalks you'll find a directional pad and the left trigger and on its other stalk the Y/X/B/A buttons and the right trigger. Most racing games map brakes and gas to the left and right triggers, respectively, so it's good to place these quite literally at the user's fingertips. Likewise, placing the D-pad under the user's thumb means that the menus that lead you to the racing action can also be navigated. In the middle of the Speed Wheel's stalks is a pod that contains the Xbox media button and the Back and Start buttons. Missing from the button mix are the left and right shoulder buttons, a seemingly innocent enough omission that--as I'll explain later--causes some serious interface issues with one of Microsoft Studios' premier racing games.

The Speed Wheel features an internal accelerometer that allows users to steer their digital car by holding the wheel in front of them and twisting from left to right. Actual degrees of sensitivity aren't stated on Microsoft's site, but because the wheel uses an accelerometer rather than a connected sensor, it can't possibly only be more than 360 degrees of rotation sensitivity. However, because of the wheel's U-shaped design, I was only ever able to get about 180 degrees of rotation comfortably. It would seem that Microsoft's engineers thought of that, because as it turned out, 180 degrees of rotation usually worked out to be just enough for most situations.

MS Wireless Speed Wheel
The rumble function is accompanied by a cool green glow from lights hidden in the ends of the stalks. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

When using the wheel with Turn 10 Studios' Forza Motorsport 4, it performed admirably. The steering was surprisingly accurate for a hunk of plastic that you hold in space ahead of you. With the game set at its causal settings, I had a blast casually navigating my favorite tracks with this casual racing wheel. The key word, if you haven't noticed, is "casual," because when I later ramped up the difficulty level and the in-game cars started to get twitchy, I had a bit of trouble dialing in the right amount of steering and counter-steering. This is mostly because of the lack of true force feedback. Don't get me wrong, the Speed Wheel's built-in rumble function is nice (it's even accompanied by cool flashing green lights embedded at the ends of the stalks), but the vibration is no real substitute for the pull of a gear, belt, or cable-actuated racing wheel.

I also have a few issues with the way that one uses the Speed Wheel. It is difficult to sit on a couch sawing away with this loose bit of plastic and not feel a bit like an idiot. Granted, you will look significantly less stupid than the guy sawing away at nothing in front of his Kinect, so it's not all bad. Additionally, the ergonomics of the wheel also left me feeling a bit tired after extended sessions. Where the standard Controller S can be rested in a lap and a fixed wheel will somewhat support my arms, holding the Speed Wheel in front of me for long periods of time left my shoulders and back feeling tight and sore.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Speed Wheel lacked an analog for the Controller S' shoulder buttons. While playing Forza 4, that proved to be a bit of an issue when navigating the menus, as certain tabs of the Community pages can't be accessed without a tap of a shoulder button. This meant that if I wanted to check on those Community pages between races, I'd need to back out to the home screen, switch to the Controller S, and then renavigate to and browse them using the second controller. (And then repeat the process to give control back to the Wheel when it was time to race.) I'd like to be able to access the entire interface with the single controller, but perhaps that's more of an issue with Turn 10's game than the design of the Speed Wheel.

There's also no place to plug in the standard wired headset that ships with the Xbox 360, so you'll need a second controller connected or a wireless headset (at an additional cost) if you want to be able to chat with your buddies during your next virtual track day.

Overall, the Wireless Speed Wheel exceeded my expectations where it counted: on the track. My previous experiences with racing wheels in this price range and of this type left me with a bad taste that has been wiped fresh by this $60 accessory and its better than average sensitivity. No, this wheel is not as good as my regular, more involved setup, but I also understand that maybe 90 percent of casual racing fans don't want to sacrifice half of a closet, 10 minutes of extra setup time, and, more importantly, almost $300 for what only the most hard-core would consider "better." These are the casual drivers who never set the difficulty level past "Normal" and never set the transmission to "Manual," but still enjoy a good race and perhaps want more control and accuracy than the standard Xbox 360 Controller S' thumbstick can offer.

If that sort of casual racing sim fanatic sounds like you, the Microsoft Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel merits checking out when it hits shelves on October 31 at an MSRP of about $60.

 

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